Whether it was the pivotal ‘This Is Us’ death reveal episode, the chilling opening moments of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’s’ second season or the final episode of ‘The Looming Tower’ that took viewers back to 9/11, each of these scenes required a sensitive touch when cutting the footage together in order to send viewers on the right emotional journey.
This season’s most intense television scenes had to be tenderly crafted in the editing room. Whether it was the pivotal This Is Us episode that finally revealed the death at the center of the NBC drama’s story, the chilling opening moments of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s second season or the final episode of The Looming Tower that took viewers back to 9/11, each of these scenes required a sensitive touch when cutting the footage together in order to send viewers on the right emotional journey.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE
Season two of Hulu’s dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale opens with one of the most terrifying scenes of the season, as June (Elisabeth Moss) and other gagged handmaids are pulled from a van and led into Fenway Park. Their confusion shifts to terror when they see gallows lining the field.
Editor Wendy Hallam Martin effectively let the scene play from June’s perspective, often choosing close-ups.
“It’s a point-of-view show and the narrative really comes from what she is going through,” she explains. “I tended to stay on close-ups so you see the progression of her thought process. In the van, she’s neutral and slightly hopeful, then her face drops.”
“On the platform where nooses are hanging, you see other Handmaids but it’s mostly told through her eyes in close-ups,” says Martin, who adds that they tried cutting in some wide shots of Fenway because it’s so iconic, but “it pulled you out of the story and it took the tension away. You want to be in [Moss’] headspace.”
She did choose a wide shot for when Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) appears on the field. “Her entrance needed to be grand — capturing the gravitas of that character and what she puts the girls through. It felt right to open it up and she appears.”
THE LOOMING TOWER
It was no doubt a steep challenge to cut the final episode of Hulu miniseries The Looming Tower, which is titled “9/11” and takes place on that tragic day in 2001. But rather than trying to re-create it, editor Meg Reticker focused on telling the political and personal stories of complex characters including FBI agents John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim).
O’Neill perished at Ground Zero, and Reticker says the trick there was “keeping him ‘alive’ because he really doesn’t appear much in the episode, except at the beginning. Ali is keeping him alive by talking about him in Yemen. And then Robert Chesney (an FBI vet played by Bill Camp) goes to Liz’s (O’Neill’s girlfriend, played by Annie Parisse) house and we hear his voice on her answering machine.”
The episode also includes a roughly 10-minute scene during which Soufan interrogates one of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards. “It was a complex scene that I was continuously working on,” Reticker explains, of selecting the right takes of an emotional Soufan, both an FBI agent and a Muslim, who in this tense scene presents his views on “how the use of Islam was used to justify their actions.”
The episode also used some real footage from Sept. 11. The editors studied hours of stock footage from the media, as well as amateur video that was recorded on the day. Notes Reticker, who was in Brooklyn on 9/11, “we used some of the footage to depict the 24-hour period but [did] not use the familiar images of the Twin Towers that would exploit the tragedy or the violence.”
THIS IS US
The “Super Bowl Sunday” episode of This Is Us finally revealed how Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) died — in the hospital following a house fire.
In a heartbreaking scene, Jack’s wife, Rebecca (Mandy Moore), thinking he will recover, steps out of his hospital room to make a phone call and then grab a snack at a vending machine. That’s when the doctor finds her and delivers the tragic news.
The delicate editing involved careful pacing and most importantly, staying on Moore’s performance.
“Rebecca is focused on candy, phone calls. When she is on the phone, we see the doctor [rushing into Jack’s room] in slow motion behind her,” signaling to the viewer that something has happened, explains editor Bjorn Myrholt.
Rebecca slowly proceeds to the vending machine, increasing the discomfort as she does something so mundane. “When Rebecca finds out that Jack is dead, time slows down and the moment is played out. She’s in complete disbelief,” says Myrholt. “The whole episode, even from act one when we see the fire, the editing is quick and fast-paced. It’s such a stark contrast to that particular scene at the vending machine.”
Myrholt chose to keep the focus on Moore’s face: “We tried cutting away to the doctor but I don’t think it was as effective as just staying with Rebecca.
“It was a challenging scene to cut. We teased this for two seasons, so we knew there would be high expectations,” he admits. “Every edit was very deliberate.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.